The European Union has traditionally imposed strict anticorruption rules for its lending and development projects. In the Western Balkans in particular, the EU’s Western Balkans Investment Framework attaches transparency and anticorruption conditions to EU investments. Moreover, the EU has made clear that progress on anticorruption reform is a main requirement for attaining EU membership, a core goal of all countries in the region. The EU’s approach, however, is under increasing pressure given competition from China, which has steadily ramped up its investment in Southeastern Europe—especially in the energy, transport, and telecommunications sectors—via its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). China is willing to invest heavily in the region (largely via loans) without attaching any anticorruption conditions. This approach can be more appealing to many of the region’s (corrupt) public officials, who would like to build infrastructure quickly and under less scrutiny.
Because of competition from China and its demonstrated negative effects on local anticorruption efforts, the EU needs to reevaluate its approach. While last year the EU published a strategic outlook paper labeling China a “systemic rival” and toughened its overall approach to the country, the EU should actively pursue more cooperation with China when it comes to investment in Southeastern Europe. This does not mean that the EU should relax its strict anticorruption and governance conditionalities. The EU still retains considerable leverage in the region, and can and should continue to use this leverage to push an anticorruption agenda. But the EU’s efforts would be more effective if the EU directly engaged with China on this topic. Indeed, the EU may even be able to work with Chinese companies in ways that raise the latter’s integrity standards and safeguards. Continue reading